Evolution of cities through time has highlighted dynamic growth, human development, and simultaneously paved the way for diverse, complex challenges. Governments are faced with hurdles in trying to overcome civic challenges while combatting large scale challenges like global warming. Social Innovation Labs, often partnering with government, from different cities are facilitating novel change-making with an experimental approach devised through a deep understanding of the citizens needs and aspirations.
Mexico City Lab (Laboratorio para la Ciudad) is an innovation lab working to bridge the gap between government and citizens, while creating links with other cities worldwide. The Design Public team sat down with Gabriella Gomez-Mont; she is the Director of Mexico City Lab and a panelist at the sixth annual Design Public. The following is our discussion with her about the history of Mexico City and her experience working with the lab to solve civic problems on the ground in the world’s sixth largest city.
The Lab appears to have a very unique approach that ties together civic innovation with an artistic approach. How do you define civic innovation and what has the relevance of art been to the approach?
G: The government and civil society relationship has worked for us! There is history in Latin America of having people from cultural fields work on civic matters because so much of what happens collectively in public life is cultural in nature. For example, health – unfortunately Mexico has the highest rate of child obesity from age 7 to 14. From the medical point of view these are not very good things to have in society, but when we think about them from a cultural point of view, these norms need to be relevant for a healthy society. A society is accustomed to have fruit juice, like India, since fruits and vegetables are readily available. Similarly, in Mexico the diet is made of beans and tortillas; these have been substituted by coke and chips. These issues have always been part of the government conversation and we have suggested many ways to see the problems from different angles, add and switch optics to try different and new things to counter them with creative ideas and suggestions.
What are the other ongoing projects or programs you are working on right now and what are the challenges you are looking at?
G: In terms of systemic change, we have a long vision of zero private automobiles in the city. This will need new laws, new cultural habits, new prototypes, and new infrastructure. We are building a team by thinking of social behaviour, so the team will involve everybody from police, mobility department, public space authority, construction department, and pedestrians. We are creating a dialogue so that everyone knows what they have to do. Over 14 million people travel through the bus system and less than 25% people own the car so there is need to rethink what it means to be a pedestrian in megalopolis.
It is also important to rethink and tweak the existing public policy rather than reinventing the wheel. The hard work has already been done in proposing and passing the law, preparing budget, and infrastructure so we look on how we can make it more powerful by applying different creative solutions to tweak it.
How do you choose the field of work for your efforts or what priorities are set before going forward on a project?
G: It’s more like a guide – can any other Ministry do this? – if the answer is yes, then we don’t get into it. We go for the projects which have an interesting impact on society. We look if there is any certain social energy and political will that can be turned into powerful conversation and could bring momentum. The allies we need are within the government and we just try new things out strategically and propose a trade of creative ethos in a way.
Are there any instances of backlash given that you are engaging with diverse perspectives or any project that didn’t turn out well as expected?
G: Yes, we have learned early on that we don’t have the capacity to judge and to implement everything. We are limited and specific about things that we ask for. We are very clear in setting up expectations. The mechanisms have been more successful, not in terms of subjects. Actually, a lot of our work is in the mobility sphere and lot of interesting work has come out of it. There have been so many lessons that are accumulating, we work and learn by integrating the governments, working groups, and civil societies. When you add humans to the equation, it’s not stable; human, political, intellectual arenas shift and are not fixed. This is the most important lesson to work with – the capacity of swift reactions, work on emerging strategies, and think about what has worked in the past might not work again. When the time comes that we work in the same pattern and are out of ideas, then we should stop and transfer it to the Ministry and work on something we can take forward in better way.
Have you ever faced challenges in explaining what the Mexico City Lab is and what it does?
G: Yes, it was a challenge as for some time the team itself asked how to explain in the simple fashion to somebody and what exactly we do. It gets better when we have projects in hand and everybody forgets that we need to explain ourselves. I think it becomes less important what projects have been done and more about the impact generated. There have been sceptics as well as there are people come to know about the lab and they feel what is the need of it if its not working or benefiting me but for us there has been more enthusiasm than scepticism.
What has been the role of the Mayor in setting up the Lab? How is the working relationship and influence from the administration and Ministry?
G: The lab would not have existed without the support of the Mayor. His support allows us to cut through the red tape. The working relationship is like we can go free and footloose in the world and experiment on many things. When it comes to turning up at the events, he has been there strategically. There is a close relationship between Mayor’s office and Lab; it’s not not day-to-day but weekly or monthly. So we keep in touch on key issues and the goals and agenda have some common base; we develop and come up with ideas and get the authoritative support and permissions for that.
We thank Gabriella for taking out time to speak with us and contributing her valuable thoughts to Design Public Conclave 6 , to be held on 3rd of November in New Delhi. Design Public brings together thought leaders and decision makers to open a dialogue for civic and social innovation. Watch this space for updates and register here to participate.